The Paradesi Synagogue

Posted by Freddy on May-28-2011

The Paradesi Synagogue is the oldest active synagogue in the Commonwealth of Nations,located in Kochi, Kerala, in South India. It was built in 1568 by the Malabar Yehudan people or Cochin Jewish community in the Kingdom of Cochin. Paradesi is a word used in several Indian languages, and the literal meaning of the term is “foreigners”, applied to the synagogue because it was historically used by “White Jews”, a mixture of Jews from Cranganore, the Middle East, and European exiles. It is also referred to as the Cochin Jewish Synagogue or the Mattancherry Synagogue. The synagogue is located in the quarter of Old Cochin known as Jew Town,and is the only one of the seven synagogues in the area still in use. The complex has four buildings. It was built adjacent to the Mattancherry Palace temple on the land gifted to the Malabari Yehuden community by the Raja of Kochi, Rama Varma. The Mattancherry Palace temple and the Mattancherry synagogue share a common wall.

The Malabari Jews formed a prosperous trading community of Kerala, and they controlled a major portion of world wide spice trade. In 1568, the Jews of Kerala constructed the Paradesi Synagogue adjacent to Mattancherry Palace, Cochin, now part of the Indian city of Ernakulam, on land given to them by Paraja, the Raja of Kochi. The original synagogue was built in the 4th century in Kodungallur when the Jews had a mercantile role in the South Indian region along the Malabar coast now called Kerala. It was later moved to Kochi from Kodungallur.The first synagogue of the Malabari Jews in Cochin was destroyed in the Portuguese persecution of the Malabari Jews and Nasrani people of Kerala in the 16th century. The second synagogue, built under the protection of the Raja of Cochin along with Dutch patronage, is the present synagogue. It is called Paradesi synagogue because it was built with Dutch patronage at a time when Kochi was under Dutch occupation, thus the name paradesi synagogue or “foreign synagogue”.

The Paradesi Synagogue has the Scrolls of the Law, several gold crowns received as gifts, many Belgian glass chandeliers, and a brass-railed pulpit. It houses the copper plates of privileges given to Joseph Rabban, the earliest known Cochin Jew, dating from the 10th century, written in Tamil on the two plates, by the ruler of the Malabar Coast. The floor of the synagogue is composed of hundreds of Chinese, 18th century, hand-painted porcelain tiles, all of which are unique. There is also an oriental rug, a gift from Haile Selassie, the last Ethiopian Emperor. The most visible part of the synagogue is the 18th century clock tower, which, along with other parts of the complex, underwent repair work between 1998 and 1999. A tablet from the earlier synagogue in Kochangadi in Kochi is placed on the outer wall of the Paradesi synagogue. The inscription states that the structure was built in the year 5105 as an abode for the spirit of God.

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